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News Erased by Google and Facebook? They Vow to Do It

A new law has triggered a showdown. At stake is the future of Canadian journalism and informed citizens.

Jeanette Ageson 23 Jun 2023The Tyee

Jeanette Ageson is publisher of The Tyee.

Attention all news readers in Canada — if you are used to seeing posts linking to Canadian news sites in your Facebook or Instagram feeds, or if you routinely Google to find news of interest, that might be about to change.

Facebook’s parent company, Meta, and Google are on the verge of blocking news from their platforms, they’ve said.

"What?" You might ask. "I thought the whole deal with social media is sharing and discussing content from around the web, and Google’s self-professed mission is to organize and connect people to the world’s information?"

So what the hell is going on? Why are they making this move, and why just in Canada?

It has to do with a fight over Bill C-18, the Online News Act which passed yesterday, June 22.

Short version: Bill C-18 is legislation that makes Google and Meta pay Canadian news organizations for their content which is shared widely on their vastly lucrative platforms.

Now that the bill is passed, Google and Meta want to subvert its intent by removing news from their sites. Carrying through on their threat will have huge implications for news media innovators and Canada’s democracy.

About the legislation

First some background. Bill C-18 was introduced in the House of Commons in April 2022, after years of lobbying by News Media Canada, an association of Canada’s largest print news brands including Postmedia, Torstar, the Globe and Mail, and many other small and mid-size outlets (The Tyee is not a member).

Bill C-18 is modelled after the Australian News Media Bargaining Code, which laid out a process to force Google and Meta to enter into commercial deals to pay news publishers for their content. As a result, the platforms struck deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars overall for Australian news publishers.

When Canada’s Bill C-18 was introduced, The Tyee joined a coalition of over 100 independent digital publishers calling for amendments to the legislation — from the outset, we’ve been worried that this bill was designed for the large incumbent news brands, not the digital independents, and that there is not enough transparency about how these deals will be struck with which publishers.

We at The Tyee did not lobby for Bill C-18. We did publish an open letter together and I appeared at both the parliamentary and Senate hearings on the bill.

Leading up to this moment, Google and Meta have been active in the Canadian journalism industry, saying they’ve wanted to help. Each platform has a training and funding program for news organizations, the Google News Initiative and Meta Journalism Project (though Meta laid off their project staff in late 2022). The Tyee was a participant in the Local News Accelerator program of the Meta Journalism Project in 2019 and has received grants from both Meta and Google journalism projects. We also have a deal with Meta for their News Innovation Test.

The effect of the legislation is to redefine the financial relationship between the platforms and news publishers, from one of funder and recipient to businesses engaging in a negotiated agreement. So far, when individual publishers have been offered funding by the platforms, they have had very little leverage in those discussions and must sign non-disclosure agreements to enter into dealmaking conversations. Bill C-18, among other things, allows publishers to collectively bargain with the platforms and possibly go to arbitration if they can’t come to a mutually agreed-upon deal.

Promises of news purges by Meta and Google

As you might imagine, Google and Meta are not huge fans of redefining the relationship in this way. Their argument is that they have no obligation to compensate news organizations for their content, news is not important to their bottom line and they certainly don’t want to co-operate with legislation that introduces an uncapped liability to their businesses in Canada. So, in retaliation, they’ve been running tests on blocking news content on their platforms.

In February, I found myself, as publisher of The Tyee, personally affected. I went to google the website I lead and none of our news stories appeared.

Google had blocked news content in their search results for some people in Canada, including me. For about five weeks, I couldn’t see The Tyee or any other news website in my search results. If they were trying to intimidate me, I had a different reaction. I think blocking news is a major threat to Google’s reputation, because it degrades its product and breaks its brand promise, and could actually be dangerous if the search tool doesn’t tell the user it has blocked news results.

Facebook has been running a similar test, and both platforms have warned that passage of C-18 will cause them to completely and permanently block news on their platforms.

Well, the bill did pass, and sure enough Meta immediately vowed to remove news from what can be shared on its platform.

The platforms made similar threats in Australia when they passed their code as well — Google threatened to pull out of Australia completely and Meta did block news for a period of time. But the digital giants cast their net very wide and also blocked government and emergency services pages during COVID-19 and wildfire season.

Their strategy won some concessions. They achieved some amendments to the Australian legislation and restored service soon after.

Citizens’ need for news hangs in the balance

Now you know why your search and social feeds might very soon look quite different.

Beyond each user’s personal experiences, however, lies a broad threat to Canada’s democracy. We see it clearly because we are a small, independent digital journalism outlet striving as best we can to pay our staff and publish news at a moment when journalism is in crisis.

There’s a lot of hope invested in efforts like The Tyee and other news startups serving a range of communities. But who would now try and start up a digital site like The Tyee if no one could find it on Google, Facebook or Instagram? New small online news outlets are particularly dependent on the platforms to get the word out and reach new audience members. This is a dynamic that authors Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin have described as "chokepoint capitalism." And now, having disrupted the advertising model that was the bedrock of corporate journalism and having achieved market dominance, Meta and Google are now poised to choke off the prospects for a vital new journalism sector.

That’s a dark prospect at a moment that already feels dire.

As others have noted, it feels like an era of the internet is coming to an end. This era included a symbiotic relationship between digital publishers and social media platforms and content aggregators. Publishers, like all individuals and brands, helped social media platforms create value for their businesses through posting content and engaging in network effects — each new member that joins these platforms increases its value and creates the incentive for the next member to join so they can connect with everyone who is already there. In exchange, publishers attract to our sites through social media new readers, some of whom might become loyal enough to buy a subscription or contribute — as at The Tyee — by joining a membership program.

We now see the grave liability for news publishers built into that relationship. Many have become extremely dependent on just a couple of fickle companies for a vital source of traffic and awareness.

Something else happened. These platforms got extremely good at advertising, with way more micro-targeting, scale and self-serve capabilities than publishers can offer.

If you’re a news publisher that makes a large amount of your revenue through advertising, this is an awkward place to be, because now you are very reliant on these platforms for discoverability but you’re also competing with them for advertising revenue. And they can turn off the traffic spigot any time (and they do — since 2022, Meta has de-emphasized news on their platforms and news publishers around the world are reporting huge drops in traffic to their sites from Facebook).

The Tyee, started in 2003, makes just five per cent of our revenue from direct-sold advertising (our largest chunk of revenue is from our reader membership program called Tyee Builders).

But we and other publishers don’t just compete with the platforms for advertising dollars, we also compete for your time. And so there is a tension that anyone working in digital publishing lives with all the time — meet people where they are at, create content for these platforms, get rewarded with higher visibility and hope that some percentage of them will come back to your site? Or keep most of your work on your own properties, maybe even locked behind a hard paywall and reach far fewer people?

Given that Google and Meta are so integral to publishers’ fates and were so instrumental in undoing the previous business model of direct advertising that largely supported news publishing, many nations are actively considering ways to shift revenues from digital giants back towards funding public interest news. Bill C-18 is Canada’s response.

Google argues that forcing them to pay publishers is like forcing a taxi company to pay restaurants to drive customers to their business. On its face, it sounds ludicrous. Except it’s not quite like that. A taxi does not have the power to set the prices and take a cut of a restaurant’s menu items, like Google does for programmatic advertising. If there is any direct comparison, it’s more akin to the dynamic between restaurants and food delivery apps who are engaged in their own battles.

Some have argued that forcing Google and Meta to pay news publishers is like forcing car manufacturers to pay horse and buggy operators for making their service obsolete. That’s a false analogy. At least the car manufacturer and the horse and buggy operator are both providing transportation. If Google and Meta were disrupting the Canadian news industry by fully employing legions of journalists providing high-quality public interest journalism, or some other mechanism that plays that role, then maybe. But they aren’t.

Google and Meta say it’s wrong to characterize what they do as "stealing" content or breaking any kind of law. We agree. But it’s clear that we have a bit of a problem here for the future of public interest journalism that is open and accessible, and published by a diverse array of outlets in communities large and small.

As we at The Tyee can attest, there’s a certain kind of journalism that is more expensive to make but is essential to democracy — investigations, longform writing, anything that takes a while to produce. We’re proud that we are making a go of it with the support of our readers, but we wouldn’t describe this path as easy or a sure thing. Overall, the trend in the Canadian news industry is layoffs and newsroom closures.

We don’t quite know what will happen next with the relationship between news publishers and platforms in Canada. But in the meantime, I’d encourage you to take stock of the sources of journalism that you trust, visit them directly, get on an email list and consider a subscription or a contribution.

And don’t hesitate to tell our leaders in Ottawa and those who run Google and Meta how you feel about the hardball tactics the digital giants are using in response to a bill that was supposed to level a badly tilted playing field and give digital news media a new chance to thrive. Instead, Google and Meta’s threatened reactions are poised to do the opposite.  [Tyee]

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